In Bhupen Khakhar’s car

– Guy Mannes-Abbott

           I feel her shalwar brush my bare leg as she turns fretfully from the check-in desk yet again, steps on her dupatta and falls backwards. Skull bone meets marble, submerging her in fearsome noises a metre from my feet. Her brain seeks an exit through her eye sockets and temples as her body begins deathly convulsions. Chaos amplifies and disrupts chaos.
           Delhi’s morning newspapers were still full of the ‘mass massacres’ in Gujarat: tens of thousands of refugees fleeing thousands of burnt-out homes and businesses, bodies in ovens[1]. If I’d not been there, she would have had more space.
           If I’d not been there I would not be a living witness to licensed inhumanity.

           * * *

           The little Maruti car pulls up, its driver kills the engine and climbs out and I’m left in the muggy silence of a darkening cocoon. As I remain still, day capitulates to night, gets it over with fast. Slowly, my attention is drawn to a source of humming light in the tinted windscreen. The glow brightens as the sky darkens until it becomes the only thing out there, ever more clearly defined. It’s a large window, one of four shop windows at the bottom of a newly-completed apartment block within ten metres of the car. The only one with shutters up and business to transact.
           I can see legs moving below four dresses hung across the glass; red, yellow, off-white and green to the right of a door jammed at 45 degrees. There’s nothing else in the glass, the dresses are spaced in such a way as to suggest plenty. That’s all: no sound, just light. Above the colour-filled light box is a wonkily painted sign. ‘Racharna’ it reads, over a kindly subtitle: ‘ladies tailors’. I watch, waiting for something more to happen, vigilant and marvelling at the spare beauty of this vision in electric light.
           Minutes pass. More.
           Suddenly I sense company: the presence of someone next to me who shifts their weight slightly and then speaks in a gentle lilt. It’s Bhupen! The artist Bhupen Khakhar. I’m sitting in his car at the Chikoowadi crossroads. We’re waiting for his assistant and driver Pandu to pick up soda water for drinks before dinner, the ingredients of which he’s also been collecting on our return from visiting a couple of Bhupen’s best paintings, including the classic Sakhibhava (1995).
           ‘Beautiful isn't it?’ The words contain a slightly self-deprecating laugh.
           It's only now that I realise Bhupen’s been sitting in a reverie staring at the window too. Only now do I realise that that is what I’ve been doing. I turn to take him in, and see his white head slightly cricked back, angled, gently observant, quiet, hard focussed. It’s an experienced poise: he’s looking with painter's eyes, fondly indulgent ones, at the shop and now I understand why it has caught my attention. It offers an image, if you’re able to see it, of life condensed. An individual. A community. Something which dipped in water might bloom with all the things that aren’t present but which it contains: the whole story, other actors, and the rest of the day. All the other dresses, wishes, wonders, secrets – little and large human things. Momentarily I’ve shared the insight. Until Bhupen spoke I’d only seen a quintessential Indian scene flattened in light: a screen. Now I glimpse its depths, condensed but present in the eye of the artist.

Bhupen Khakhar
You can't please all, 1981
Oil on canvas, 167 x 167
From the Chemould Prescott Road Archives, Mumbai.

[1]Times of India, 1 March 2002. ‘80 persons were killed, an overwhelming majority of them in Ahmedabad, in the worst ever communal violence in Gujarat on Thursday during the state-wide bandh organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and backed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party … The worst incident took place in the Gulbarg Housing Society in Chamanpura area of Ahmedabad where a mob entered into a cluster of houses and burnt alive around 40 persons including former Congress MP Ahsan Jaffrey.
          Mass massacres also took place in in the adjoining Naroda area, where 17 deaths have been reported … There were reports of fierce attacks by mobs in Vadodara [Baroda] … VHP activists seemed quite emboldened by the backing that they got from the state BJP … no attempt by the police to contain the damage.’
          See also an excellent range of books, primary amongst which is Gujarat The Making of a Tragedy, ed. Siddharth Varadarajan, Penguin India 2002. Also The Gujarat Carnage, ed. Asghar Ali Engineer, Orient Longman ND 2003.

This is an extract from the full article published in Oberon 1 –  click here to subscribe.